The Holy Spirit: Tongues and Prophecy

Talking about the Holy Spirit without mentioning the gifts of tongues and prophecy would be like talking about music without mentioning F sharp. Maybe if we ignore it, it will go away.

This topic is controversial and divisive. Within the body of Christ there is a broad range of strong opinions. And so it can be tempting to ignore it. But why ignore a gift of God?

The first time the phenomenon of tongues appears is in Acts 2 on the day of Pentecost. The apostles were all gathered “together in one place” when they heard something like a “mighty rushing wind” and “they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:1-4).

In this instance, the languages the Spirit inspires are actual human languages for the purpose of proclaiming the “mighty works of God” (Acts 2:11). We know this because in Acts 2:8, the onlookers ask “how is it that we hear, each of us in his own language?”

The second time this phenomenon appears is in Acts 10:46. We’re told that as Peter preaches, the Holy Spirit falls, is poured out on Gentiles, and they speak in tongues and extol God.

The third time is Acts 19:6 when new Christians receive the Holy Spirit and begin to speak in tongues and prophesy.

It spreads in the early church in Paul gives a lot of instruction on it in 1 Corinthians. In chapter 12 he says that God gives the gift but not to everyone. In chapter 13 he says it doesn’t matter if you speak in tongues unless you have love! In chapter 14 he says he wants everyone to speak in tongues, and even more to prophesy, but goes into detail about how the gift can be used in a way that edifies the church and glorifies Jesus.

Speaking in tongues
Is unintelligible. Thus if it happens in public it must have an interpretation (1 Corinthians 14:13). Therefore it is not as valuable as human words (1 Corinthians 14:19). If not exercised carefully it can turn off non-believers (1 Corinthians 14:23). So speaking in tongues in public should be done with great care.

Praying in tongues
Unintelligible to the person praying. Therefore the mind is disengaged (or “unfruitful”) but the “spirit prays” (1 Corinthians 14:14). It’s directed to God (1 Corinthians 14:2). Paul speaks in Romans 8:26-27 about how

“the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”

This is a great gift from our heavenly Father for our private prayer and worship.

Intelligible. Spontaneously revealed. Human words. Can have mistakes, so it should be tested (1 Thessalonians 5:19-21). It is used to build up, encourage and comfort (1 Corinthians 14:3). It can be used evangelistically to disclose secrets of the heart (1 Corinthians 14:24-25). So, understandably, Paul values this gift and says that we should too! (1 Corinthians 14:1).

Have these gifts ceased?
1 Corinthians 13:8-12 says:

Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.

If you read this passage to mean that “when the perfect comes” is when we see Jesus “face to face”, then you might call yourself a charismatic, or a continuationist. You (and I) believe that the gift of tongues and prophecy continue to this day, while we and the world remain imperfect, longing for the day when we see Jesus. These gifts should be exercised in submission to the word of God and with care, but they should be exercised!

But if you read this passage to mean that “when the perfect comes” is when the bible is done being written, then you might call yourself a cessationist. You believe that these gifts have ceased and are no longer available.

Sandy Millar, the former vicar of Holy Trinity Brompton was once asked, “can you get into heaven without speaking in tongues?” His response was, “yes… but why would you want to?”

I hold the conviction that scripture clearly teaches that the gift of tongues and prophecy is for today, should be eagerly desired, and will continue “until the perfect comes”. The testimony of the bible is supreme and sufficient, but I can add my own testimony to the power and the value of these gifts in my own life and ministry. I’ll share some examples later in the week.

I think the reason why this issue is so divisive and controversial is because of the great power that the gift of tongues and prophecy contains to demonstrate the glory of God. Of course that would be divisive. With scripture as a foundation, I hope that one of the ways God can use me over the course of my life is to encourage Christians, and more specifically worship leaders, to “eagerly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy!” 

One thought on “The Holy Spirit: Tongues and Prophecy”

  1. Jamie,

    Thanks so much for writing this. I come from a Pentecostal background, and now find myself lining up theologically with evangelical reformed folks like John Piper and Matt Chandler. It is so helpful to have someone write out for people what the Bible actually says about the gifts of tongues and prophecy, because so many people just take at face value the traditions and teachings of leaders who either have the issue as a soap-box or avoid it all together.


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